Writing Dialogue – Listening to What’s Not Being Said

Turn off the sound on a good movie and just by watching the action, you can figure out most of the story. That’s because dialogue should be used only as a last resort. Movies are a visual medium so screenplays should emphasize action rather than words. Just remember that actions speak louder than words, so make your characters’ action say something and only use dialogue when necessary.

The biggest problem with writing dialogue is that it’s often too straightforward and lacking in subtext. For example, watch any of the bad “Star Wars” prequels and listen to the atrocious dialogue where characters say exactly what they’re thinking such as: “Now that I’m with you again, I’m in agony. My heart is beating, hoping that that kiss will not become a scar.”

Does anyone really talk like that?

No, that’s because most people never say exactly what’s on their mind. Instead, they say anything except what’s really on their mind. That’s because people are often fearful of being embarrassed or hurt if they do say what’s on their mind. That’s why realistic dialogue focuses on subtext, saying something without directly saying it.

The real trick to writing dialogue is to first define what each character really wants to say in each scene, and then hide that meaning in indirect dialogue. Notice when two people are attracted to each other, they don’t rush right out and say, “Hey, I like you.” “Really? I like you too. Want to go out?” “Sure, let’s go.”

Instead, each person is often hesitant and shy. They’ll talk about the weather or what’s happening around them at that moment, but they won’t talk about what they really feel. That’s the key to writing dialogue. First, you must know what each character wants to say. Second, you have to mask those feelings and say it indirectly.

In the opening scene of “Fargo,” a man drives to meet two men he’s hired to kidnap his wife. Since this man is late, the two hired hit men are upset but rather than state right outright, “Hey, I’m mad at you for being late,” the hit men simply act grumpy.

Jerry: Shep Proudfoot said...

Hit man: He said you'd come at 7:30 What gives?                 

Jerry: Shep said  8:30.

Hit man: We've been here an hour. (points to the other hit man) He's peed three times already.

Based on this dialogue, it’s obvious that the hit man is annoyed, but he doesn’t come right out and say that. He simply gets confrontational and reveals his annoyance through indirect dialogue. That’s what makes dialogue memorable. We know what the hit man is really saying, but the way he says it is far more interesting.

When writing dialogue for your own scenes, think of what the characters in that scene want. Once you know what each character wants, write dialogue that reveals what they want without directly saying what they want. In good dialogue, you should be able to hear what’s not being said. When you’ve written dialogue that clearly reveals what’s not being said, then you’ll have succeeded in creating interesting dialogue.

[xyz-ihs snippet=”Making-a-Scene-book”]

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